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The Contentious Eastern European Missile Defense Shield


One of the most vocal rising powers – Russia – shone on the world stage this past week.  President Dmitry Medvedev made his way to the G20 Summit in London via Berlin.  He met with several world leaders, agreeing on economics with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, forging a stronger bilateral relationship with Chinese President Hu Jintao, attempting to forget bad blood with British PM Gordon Brown, and forging a new cooperation with US President Barack Obama.  It was the meeting with Obama that was of particular relevance for Medvedev.  It was the first time the two leaders met face to face and my colleague Roger Scher noted the encounter which appeared to be positive.

From a foreign policy standpoint, the main issue at the Obama-Medvedev meeting was that of missile defense.  Obama has yet to make a firm statement about what the US intends to do about the eastern European missile defense shield developed by the Bush Administration.  The shield is to involve various installations in Poland and Czech Republic with the intention of protecting US allies and interests from potential threats (according to Bush’s team, these threats come from Iran).  Moscow understandably has bristled at these plans, citing the distance of Poland from Iran and repeatedly suggesting that the missile shield appeared to be much more of an aggression against Russia.  Moscow went so far as to call Washington’s bluff, telling the US that it could share its radar in Azerbaijan if it really wanted to build defense against Iran.  Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected this proposal and meanwhile US-Russia relations continued to sour with Russian President Vladimir Putin giving a harsh “Cold-War-like” speech at the Munich Conference in 2007.

So are things really different now between Russia and the US under Obama?  For one, the rhetoric has changed.  This past weekend in Strasbourg and Prague, Obama pledged to work with Russia on non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament.  This is quite a shift from Bush’s agenda.  But what about the missile defense shield?  In London, Russia announced one of the fruits of the Obama-Medvedev meeting: that the US is willing to consult with Russia about alternatives to the eastern European missile defense shield.  Medvedev said following the meeting:

“We touched upon this issue and we agreed that our contacts and discussions on this issue would be continued. I got an impression that at least on this issue our (U.S.) partners do not hold a primitive position but are rather ready to discuss various ideas. And this is already crucial… Before that (meeting with Obama) we would usually hear something completely different, like: ‘What’s the difference?’ … ‘We have already decided everything’ … and ‘This issue is closed already’.”

So, is Obama saying that the US is going to abandon the defense shield?  Far from it.  After all, Washington would be blind to abandon its key allies, especially Poland, like this.  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made sure to reassure Warsaw that Washington will not forsake Poland.  One possible proposal to work with Russia would be to develop a joint missile defense shield, as proposed by US Senator Carl Levin (D-MI).

No matter what the case, Obama is still using the planned shield for leverage.  Today in Prague he spoke out against Iran and its nuclear ambitions.  Obama said:

“As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defence system that is cost-effective and proven… If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defence construction in Europe will be removed.” Read more.

So, Obama will continue to walk a fine line between putting his foot down on Iran while promoting ties with Russia.  It is Russia that has the upper hand.



Christopher Herbert

Christopher Herbert is an analyst of foreign affairs with specific expertise in US foreign policy, the Middle East and Asia. He is Director of Research for the Denver Research Group, has written for the Washington Post’s PostGlobal and Global Power Barometer and has served on projects for the United States Pacific Command and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He has degrees from Yale University and Harvard University in Middle Eastern history and politics and speaks English, French, Arabic and Italian.

Area of Focus
US Foreign Policy; Middle East; Asia.